In the coming weeks, construction crews will begin meticulously restoring the roof and upper floor windows of the landmark Pullman Clock Tower and Administration Building, the former headquarters of the company that developed the neighborhood and forever changed rail travel in the 19th century.
Nearly lost in an arson attack in 1998, the structure is being overhauled for its next life as the visitor center for the Pullman National Monument, Chicago’s first ever site in the national park system. The roof work, funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Park Service, is expected to take six months.
Construction on the old administrative building comes more than three years after President Obama dedicated the site as a national monument, setting into motion a restoration that Pullman residents and preservationists have long called for. According to Kathleen Schneider, the first superintendent of Pullman National Monument, there are a mix of public and private funds earmarked for the restoration, including more than $13 million from the National Park Foundation.
“We’re only three years old with a staff of three people,” Schneider says of the new national monument. “Although it may appear that not a lot is happening, we’ve been working hard with the State of Illinois and community on the 2020 opening of the visitors center.”
Schneider says the site’s educational programming will center on Pullman’s legacy as a planned neighborhood and as an integral site in the labor and civil rights movements. Specifically, the visitor center will spotlight the internal clashes that led to the Pullman Strike of 1894 and formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
As for community partners, Schneider highlights the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) group, a nonprofit developer that has helped bring investment to the greater Pullman area in recent years. While the Clock Tower’s restoration represents a symbolic rebirth of the historic district, newer facilities including a Whole Foods distribution center, an expanded greenhouse by produce supplier Gotham Greens, and soap maker Method have reinvigorated the neighborhood’s identity as an industrial hub.
And there’s still more on the way, according to CNI President David Doig.
“It’s taken decades for these neighborhoods to decline and it’ll take decades for them renew,” Doig says of the broader trend of deindustrialization throughout the South Side. “But when we think about community development, we think about principles of being holistic by building on existing assets and thinking about the longer term perspective.”
The recipe for Pullman’s rebirth includes public transit connectivity, easy access to heavy rail and the port, and an inventory of available land. Doig says this combination makes Pullman particularly desirable for logistics, transportation, and manufacturing businesses. The recent wave of industrial development in the area has had a trickle-down effect, Doig adds, contributing to a need for more retail and restaurants as Pullman attracts new workers.
Other new developments include the forthcoming Pullman Community Center, a 135,000-square-foot facility with space for indoor athletics and community programming. There’s also the One Eleven Food Hall slated for the 111th Street Gateway Retail Center, and a 150,000-square-foot greenhouse set for Gotham Greens, currently located on the roof of the Method soap factory.
Additionally, a new 38-unit artist housing development is underway in the historic district. Dubbed the Pullman Artspace Lofts, the development will fill a vacant parcel between two existing structures on Langley Avenue. It will also include 2,000 square feet of community and gallery space. Doig adds that CNI hopes to solidify plans to bring a hotel to Pullman in the coming months.
Since 2010, more than $250 million has been invested in new developments in Pullman, says Doig. He also says 1,700 jobs have come to the area. And with the continued momentum surrounding the National Monument site, Pullman may be poised for even more development as investor interest increases.
“The national monument has been significant in providing investor confidence in the area, and has certainly brought more attention, more visitors, and more interest to Pullman,” says Doig.
Alderman Anthony Beale (9th) says that Pullman is experiencing a full-scale renaissance — and setting the stage for other South Side communities to follow. While the flood of development has been a long time in the making, Alderman Beale would like to see Chicago’s next mayor meet with the City Council to produce a comprehensive plan for development across the rest of the South and West Sides.
“Downtown is going to take care of itself — we need to concentrate on the neighborhoods,” he says. "When you give people jobs and back it up with a good education, crime is going to drop, because at the end of the day, all we want is a better quality of life.”
Beale pegs the total post-recession investment in Pullman closer to $300 million.
But the Pullman National Monument means more than a reinvestment in the community: It’s a piece of history that deserves to live on for future generations to enjoy, NPS Superintendent Schneider believes.
“The public owns that site and needs access to it,” she says. “It’s a promise that has been a long time coming and we need to work harder to spread the message to the larger Chicago community and to the nation of how important this place is.”